Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Making of PT 109...How Hollywood helped spin the Kennedy legend

He was our nation's first cult president, an impossible combination of leading-man looks, political savvy, and boundless personal charm. Not surprisingly, he was the first living President of the United States to be the subject of a major motion picture.

The inside story of the making of that picture, PT 109--America's first marriage of presidential politics and Hollywood film-making--illustrates the principle that in Washington as in Tinseltown, it's all about the Art of the Spin.

The meteoric political rise of John Fitzgerald "Jack" Kennedy--the protagonist of our tale--in fact began with a shamefaced debacle aboard patrol-torpedo boat 109 in the South Pacific during World War II. Kennedy was a 26-year-old Navy lieutenant in charge of the fast-moving, 80-foot PT boat, one of over 600 such vessels defending the South Pacific. In the moonless midnight blackness of August 1, 1943, Kennedy's 109 was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer. Two of 12 crew members drowned; Kennedy led the survivors to safety, swimming island to island until help arrived.

The incident left Jack Kennedy deeply ashamed. He should have been: In the entire history of World War II, the 109 was the only PT boat ever rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer. There were even whispers of a possible court-martial on grounds of dereliction of duty.
Enter Joseph P. Kennedy, Jack's dad.

Joe was one of the richest blokes in America and a pioneer in the Art of the Spin--former bootlegger, stock manipulator, and Hollywood producer. It was Joe's dream to put a son in the White House, and to that end he
unleashed a juggernaut of publicity designed to sell his oldest surviving son to the American public.

Joe persuaded Pulitzer-winning author John Hersey, a Kennedy-confidant (his wife was Jack's ex-steady) to write an article for the New Yorker focusing on his son's efforts to lead the stranded PT-crew to safety. The resulting article portrayed Jack as the Dashing Naval Hero, Leader of Men.

When Jack ran for Congress in 1947--his first-ever campaign--the elder Kennedy circulated 150,000 copies of Hersey's story to Massachusetts voters. The returning WWII hero was elected with ease. Four years later, Jack was elected to the Senate. And in 1960..well, you know the rest.

The search for JFK

Joe Kennedy's behind-the-scenes machinations may have succeeded in putting a son in the Oval Office, but the elder Kennedy wasn't done spinning the PT 109 legend just yet.

In 1961, Joe successfully pitched the idea for a feature film based on his son's WWII-exploits to pal Jack Warner of Warner Brothers Studios. Joe handled contract negotiations himself, receiving approval over both script and selection of the actor to portray JFK.

Warner Brothers immediately began testing dozens of actors for the part of young Kennedy, including Peter Fonda, Roger Smith, Chad Everett--even Edd "Kookie" Byrnes (of 77 Sunset Strip fame) was considered. JFK himself favored Warren Beatty--who turned down the part.

Hollywood buzzed with conjecture: Which lucky leading man would snare the part of young Kennedy? Cliff Robertson would later recall his shock at being summoned to the Warners lot for a screen test. In his wildest dreams, he told a reporter, he never put himself in the mix.

No wonder: Robertson was 37-years-old and possessed none of the Kennedy charisma. Nonetheless, two days after testing he received a phone call from a friend in New York. "There's a picture of you and President Kennedy on the front page of the New York Times," the actor was told. "You've got the part."

Unbeknownst to Robertson, Warner Brothers had shipped each of the actors' tests to Paul Fischer, White House projectionist, who played them for Kennedy and his brother-in-law Peter Lawford. Kennedy selected Robertson.

Within weeks, Robertson received an invitation to 600 Pennsylvania Avenue. During their 45-minute confab, JFK made two requests. First, he asked the actor to switch the part in his hair from left to right. Then he told Robertson to forget the Boston accent, to play the part, in JFK's words, "non-regional," fearful that any actor attempting his veddy proper Hah-vahd inflection risked sounding ridiculous. To drive home the point, Kennedy actually performed a brief impersonation of a bad nightclub comic impersonating him--"Ahhsk not what yo-ah country can do for you." Robertson apparently got the message. As a parting gift, JFK gave Robertson a PT 109 tie clasp.

Next, Team Kennedy turned its attention to selecting a director. Warner's original choice, Raoul Walsh, was a once-great director whose 1928 film Regeneration had starred Gloria Swanson, Joe Kennedy's long-time mistress. But Walsh hadn't made a decent picture in years--decades, actually.

JFK's Press Secretary Pierre Salinger was skeptical, and asked Warner to send Walsh's most recent picture--the hokey Let's Go Marines--to the White House for screening. On the afternoon of Feb. 23, 1962, JFK took a seat in the projection room alongside Salinger. Ten minutes into the film, JFK had seen enough. He leaned over and whispered in Salinger's ear. Salinger stood, waved his arms, and shouted to Fischer to stop the film.

According to witnesses, Kennedy then turned to Salinger and said, "Tell Jack Warner to go f*ck himself."

Kennedy ultimately agreed to the selection of Lewis Milestone, who was replaced mere weeks into the film by Les Martinson (see David Whorf interview).

Florida shipyards from Panama City to Miami began converting Air Force rescue vessels into PT boats, which had long since become obsolete. In waters east of Panama City, one fleet of faux-PTs--suspected of being a Cuban flotilla--was stopped and searched by the US Coast Guard.

Island scenes were shot at Munson Island off Key West, and at Little Palm Island, an ultra-private, exclusive retreat half-way between Marathon and Key West. There was no electricity on Little Palm, so Joe Kennedy persuaded the state of Florida to install 3.5 miles of utility poles for the shoot.

The film, budgeted at $5 million, was completed in 11 weeks.

The view from Camelot

The President and First Lady screened PT 109 for the first time on Jan. 29, 1963, in the White House projection room. The next day JFK watched it again along with 35 White House staff members. According to Fischer's records, brothers Ted and Bobby watched the film on May 20, 1963; two days later the president's children, John-John, 3, and Caroline, 6, were shown the film as well.

The movie premiered on July 3, 1963, at the posh Beverly Hills Hilton, the first major motion picture premiere not held in a theater. This was, after all, a $100-a-ticket, black-tie gala to raise money for the Joseph P.Kennedy Child Care Center in Santa Monica. JFK did not attend. In his stead: Mother Rose Kennedy, sisters Pat Lawford (and husband Peter) and Eunice Shriver (and husband Sargent). "Biggest cheer of the evening," reported Newsweek, "came not during the picture but at a preceeding dinner when 100 waiters marched in bearing ice-cream cakes topped with gunmetal-gray plastic models of PT 109."

The film opened to less than sterling reviews. The New York Times called Robertson's performance "pious, pompous, and self-righteously smug," and dismissed the story as "synthetic and without the feel of truth." Newsweek's review, entitled "Jack the Skipper," offered: "Robertson doesn't look, act, or talk like (Kennedy)--still, one must believe as with Santa Claus."

PT 109 was only a moderate box office draw. It was, after all, a novelty: The first film ever made about a living president--and an enormously popular one, at that. The film abruptly ended its run in November of 1963; Warner Brothers yanked the film following Kennedy's assassination on November 22.

"I had hoped (PT 109) would be something of a classic," the late George Stevens (a Kennedy family-friend and director of Giant, Shane, and A Place in the Sun, among others) told reporters in 1974. "But it was not a very exceptional one." The Kennedys liked the film a great deal, Stevens recalled, and that was important in the end.

Ultimately, it was Jack Kennedy--the master ironist--who cut through the fog of myth and publicity created by his father, Spinmeister Joe.

Once, when asked how he managed to become a naval hero, JFK replied: "It was easy. They sunk my boat."

--Ken Brooks , Cult Movies magazine, Issue 41
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PT 109 cast and crew...

Les Martinson (director)
Specialized in low budget, B-productions, from The Atomic Kid (1954, starring Mickey Rooney), to the campy Batman (1966). Eventually moved to TV, where his many directorial credits include Rescue From Gilligan's Island (1978).

Bryan Foy (producer)
Secured a place in film history by directing Warner's first talkie, Lights of New York (1928). Thereafter became known as "Keeper of the B's" for turning out scores of low-budget films. In 1953, as head of Warners' "B" division, Foy produced House of Wax, one of the most successful and popular 3-D flicks of all-time.

Cliff Robertson (JFK)
Son of a wealthy California rancher. Served in Merchant Marines during WWII, arriving in the Solomon Islands in August 1943--about the time Kennedy's PT sank. Appeared in Season One, Episode One of TV's Outer Limits, as well as two Twilight Zones. Directed opening and closing sequences of PT 109. Won the Oscar in 1968 for portrayal of a mentally-challenged adult-turned-genius in Charly. Over 40 films to his credit;appeared most recently in Spiderman (2002).

ALSO FEATURING: Ty Hardin (Ensign Leonard Thom)
Born Oscar Whipple Hungerford. Played football at Texas A&M under legendary coach Bear Bryant. Made film debut in I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958). Starred in TV western Bronco (1958-1962). Roles dwindled; moved to Spain and opened chain of laundromats while appearing in spaghetti-westerns. Expelled from Spain following drug bust; returned to US and lived as survivalist in Arizona before becoming a traveling evangelist.

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